The United States will be a global natural gas trading powerhouse by 2035 by which time the commodity's market share will match that of oil and coal, BP plc's top economist said Wednesday.

Chief economist Christof Ruhl, who was joined by Group CEO Bob Dudley, shared highlights of the oil major's projections over the next 23 years.

As has been the case in BP's last three forecasts, natural gas will continue to make the biggest gains over the period, with the United States leading the way.

"The U.S. will remain the world's largest producer of natural gas, accounting for nearly 20% in 2035," Ruhl noted. "The U.S. will also be the world's largest liquids producer," a trend that began in 2013.

For the first time ever in history, the global market share for oil will fall from its dominant position, as will that for coal, and they will converge with natural gas by 2035 to each hold a 27% global market share.

"This would indeed be the first time in human history that the world is not dominated by one fuel," said Ruhl. As a dominant gas supplier, the United States by then would control how gas is traded, he added.

"We project that by 2035 the U.S. will be energy self-sufficient while maintaining its position as the world's top liquids and natural gas producer."

North America rapidly will turn regionally into an exporting region, with a heavy tilt toward supplying Asia and Europe, the only two "deficit regions," energy-wise, Ruhl said. "North America will go from being a small importer to a massive, interregional gas exporter."

The natural gas trade is set to continue to grow stronger than consumption and be more integrated. “But the pace slows down considerably over what we've seen from the last two decades. This is mostly due to a slower growth in pipeline trade."

BP is projecting the liquefied natural gas (LNG) trade to increase globally by 4% over the forecast period, compared to an almost 2% increase in gas consumption. The share in trade of LNG improves, from about 10% of global gas traded in 2012 to about 15% by 2035.

"By region, the implications are obviously driven by production conditions in individual regions. North America's case is very clear…what you have here is a massive increase in shale gas production crowding out conventional gas to some extent…

"As a matter of fact, by the end of the outlook period, the produced volume of shale gas in the U.S. will be larger than conventional gas has ever been."

U.S. natural gas is forecast to replace oil as the leading fuel in domestic energy consumption around 2027, rising to 35% in 2035 from 30% today. At the same time, oil's share of the U.S. market falls to 28% from 36%.

The implications of growing tight oil production in North America are clear, Ruhl said. Last year the United States was the top oil producer on the planet.

"In the U.S., where oil imports peaked in 2005, they will go down from 60% of domestic consumption to about 1 million b/d less than 10% of domestic consumption by 2035. And in parallel in China, imports are set to increase to about 75% of domestic consumption, both in volume terms and in percentage terms more interdependency than the U.S. ever had."

The "big picture is that supply is keeping step with demand," Ruhl noted. If the oil market were a "normal" market, he said, supply sufficiency would cause prices to come under pressure. However, the oil market isn't a normal market, but rather operates under a system, where oil-rich countries, such as those in OPEC, react to market situations. Because of those unknown reactions, "your guess is as good as mine" as to how prices may react to supply equalling demand.

The "wildcard" in BP's forecast is transportation, and specifically the increasing role of natural gas, said Ruhl. By 2035, the transportation system will would be oil-based, but "natural gas gains share very quickly, overtaking biofuels by 2025." BP now expects natural gas to hold a 7% share of the transport market by 2035, with 4% held by biofuels. However, infrastructure needs remain a big question mark, which means gas could hold a bigger share of the market, or much less, he added.

Over the forecast period, BP expects that in the United States:

  • Rising production of oil (37%) and natural gas (45%) outpaces declines in coal (minus 20%); oil output will surpass its previous peak (1970), while gas continues to rise from today's record levels;
  • Domestic tight oil output will triple to 4.5 million b/d, accounting for one-third of liquids production;
  • Shale gas production will more than double to 65 Bcf/d, reaching nearly 70% of the total;
  • U.S. energy production rises by 24% while consumption expands by only 3%;
  • U.S. oil imports drop by nearly 75% to the lowest level on record and the country becomes a net gas exporter by 2017;
  • Large declines in domestic demand for oil (minus 18%), coal (minus 12%) and nuclear (minus 17%) are offset by consumption growth in natural gas, which rises 21%, and by renewables, up 277%;
  • U.S. carbon dioxide emissions from energy use decline by 6% to levels not realized since the late 1980s;
  • Fossil fuels still account for 80% of U.S. energy demand in 2035, down from today's 85%, driven by growth in renewables in power generation to 8% from 2%;
  • Energy consumed in domestic power generation rises by 10% and coal's share drops to 35% from 43%;
  • Energy consumed in U.S. transport falls by 18%, with oil’s share falling to 83% from 95%, as biofuels and natural gas capture a combined 8% share by 2035; and
  • U.S. energy production as a share of consumption rises to 101% in 2035 from 84% in 2012;
  • Domestic share of global demand falls to 13% from 18% as China rises to 27% from 22%; and
  • U.S. energy intensity will be 40% lower, falling faster than the global average of 36%. Per capita energy use will be the lowest on record.

"The outlook describes a future that is different in several respects from what many expected just a short while ago," Dudley noted. "We still expect global energy demand to grow -- by 36% between 2011 and 2030 -- driven by the emerging economies. Without continuous improvements in energy efficiency, demand would have to grow much more rapidly simply to sustain economic growth."

In previous forecasts, BP's forecasters had looked out to 2030, but this year they extended their gaze.

"By pushing the horizon out to 2035 we're seeing some really interesting new angles on where energy demand is going," Dudley noted. "The last two decades saw growth in energy demand of over 50%. Over the next two, out to 2035, it will be about 41%...still growing, but a bit less strongly," with most of the growth in developing countries like China and India.

"You may think things don't change much year-on-year in the energy business. But the past decade has shown that's not the case," Dudley said. "The U.S. shale boom, for example, wasn't really on the radar 10 years ago. Now it means the U.S. is weaning itself off imported energy, with profound global implications."

The outlook "underlines the power of competition and market forces in driving efficiency and innovation -- important not only in unlocking new supplies such as unconventional oil and gas but also in improving energy efficiency and consequently limiting the growth of carbon emissions."

A big message in the outlook is the importance of technology and innovation, from the development of unconventional resources to the efficiency of power generation and improved fuel economy. Economists also highlight how energy resources are expanding.

"The energy industry is highly competitive and investment will flow to the places that possess the right resources below ground and the right conditions above it," said Dudley. "Highlighting the 'above-ground' factors that have made the U.S. and Canada engines for energy innovation can be instructive for other nations seeking to develop their domestic energy resources.

"The overall conclusion is that increased demand can be met as long as competition is present to drive innovation, unlock resources and encourage efficiency. This is why we remain optimistic the world will produce the energy it needs to fuel continued economic growth.